Malaspina Biology student, Andrew Cameron, studies Belize water quality

July 4, 2000 - 5:00pm

The chance to live, work and study in a developing country was something Andrew Cameron never dreamed possible when he enrolled in the Bachelor of Science degree program at Malaspina University-College, four years ago.

Cameron worked on the Belize River Water Quality Assessment project under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Hoch, Malaspina's biology department chair. "It was a great experience," said Cameron, currently working on his Master's degree at the University of British Columbia. "It's one I'll never forget."

Cameron first traveled to Belize as a second-year science student at Malaspina in August, 1998. He was enrolled in a month-long course in tropical ecology taught by Hoch and other Malaspina biologists. Several months later, Cameron was selected for a fellowship to work on a special research project to set up a water quality monitoring program along the Belize River.

Hoch established the research project through interactions with faculty at the University-College of Belize (UCB) and with funding through the Canadian College Partnership Program of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

"It's a four-year training and monitoring project which benefits students both at Malaspina and in Belize," Hoch said. Hoch explains that water quality monitoring is important in developing countries, like Belize, because few communities have the facilities to properly treat domestic sewage, not to mention other waste effluents from industry and agriculture. The project helps empower UCB with the capacity to train students in assessing the risk, magnitude and prevalence of contaminant impacts on human health and the ecosystem.

"Agricultural and human wastes are openly released into watersheds, eventually ending up in surface water (streams and ponds)," said Hoch.
People in rural areas of Belize normally use wells as the main sources of drinking water; however, wells can dry up during February to June, and people must then use surface water that may be contaminated with waterborne diseases.

"Clean, fresh water is a luxury many of us take for granted, but not in countries like Belize," said Cameron. "During our regular samplings, we carried out a general test to determine bacterial levels in the river water as part of our research. We were looking at pathogenic bacteria, which can cause infections in humans, including the possibility of cholera," he said.

In 1991, cholera was reintroduced to South America through water sources, and there were numerous fatalities. Within a year, the deadly disease spread throughout Southern and Central America. Cholera is still a concern in Belize, and Cameron specifically wanted to know more about the risk in the Belize River.

"I attempted other diverse tests to see if we could recognize with certainty whether or not there was the cholera bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, in the river," said Cameron.

"There was definitely the cholera bacterium in certain reaches of the river, but from the data it's difficult to predict when outbreaks will occur. Fortunately, there weren't any reported outbreaks in the surrounding communities when I found cholera in the water. The tests may be more effective in detecting the specific pathogenic strain of the bacterium, with a little fine-tuning," he said.

The research team also set up a laboratory at the University-College of Belize, with all equipment necessary to conduct the tests, and trained Belizean students in water quality testing. "There were two Belizean students employed throughout the project to work along with me plus other student volunteers who came along on the sampling trips," said Cameron.

Up until now there has been little water quality testing in Belize. "One public health department employee is responsible for testing water quality throughout the entire country. He focuses primarily on major urban areas like Belize City and the capital Belmopan," said Cameron.
This fall will be Malaspina biology department's third year of conducting research on the Belize River project.

Cameron said that the opportunity to work in Belize provides students with invaluable research experience and exposure to a different culture.
"Now that I'm at graduate school at UBC I realize how fortunate I was to have had the research experience at Malaspina," said Cameron. "Most undergraduates from larger institutions haven't had the same kind of research and lab experiences that I had at Malaspina. The smaller class sizes, one-on-one interaction with instructors and opportunity to do research and work in well-equipped science labs at Malaspina, plus being given the chance to carry out practical research in a developing country, has given me a definite advantage."

According to Hoch, usually only honours students at UBC or other large universities have the opportunity to work on specialized research projects while obtaining their undergraduate degrees.

"Here at Malaspina, research and lab experience is an important component of the overall program for all students," said Hoch. "While large 'research-based' universities in B.C. and elsewhere are cutting laboratory practice from courses, we have strived to preserve these hours of lab-skills development. Pure knowledge is a vital necessity in a science curriculum, but we consider the practice of science, i.e. research, an equally vital and precious part of an undergraduate student's science education. Andrew and many other Malaspina Biology grads are proof of this philosophy."

Cameron is currently working with UBC professor Rosemary Redfield and looking at how bacteria take up DNA from their environment, and how DNA influences them. He's studying bacterial genetics and evolution, and plans to switch to a PhD program, next year.

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